Political leaders celebrated in Whatì as ground was broken on the community's new all-season road, but some residents remain concerned about the long-term impact of year-round road access.
Plans to build the all-season road have been 30 years in the making, said the community's chief, Alfonz Nitsiza, after two elders who survived plane crashes pushed for the road to protect residents and visitors.
"This particular initiative came out of elders' wisdom and words," agreed Monfwi MLA Jackson Lafferty, who represents Whatì at the territorial level.
"They were fearful of climate change, heavy equipment going through the ice ... and the high cost of living in small communities," said Lafferty. "They were fearful for their people of Whatì."
The 97-kilometre road will branch off from Highway 3 at the location of the present winter road turnoff. The winter road currently serves Whatì, Gamètì, and Wekweètì.
Infrastructure minister Wally Schumann said he believes the road is important not only for the people of Whatì, but all of Canada.
“To me this is more than just about infrastructure," said Schumann. "This is a new relationship with Indigenous governments, with them being a participant and actually owning part of this road."
The road is a public-private partnership, or P3 project, between the Tłįchǫ government, the Government of the Northwest Territories, the federal government, and contractor North Star Infrastructure (a consortium which includes the Tłįchǫ government).
The all-season road is intended to benefit the community by lowering the local cost of living, connecting Whatì with the rest of Canada, creating more jobs and business opportunities, improving access to health care, increasing tourism opportunities, and allowing more resource exploration and development.
The expected opening of the nearby Nico mine, which requires the all-season road to be viable, is one of the main reasons the road to Whatì is being built.
Cobalt at the Nico site, in particular, is of interest to the North American market as a component in the rechargeable batteries used by electric vehicles and other, similar technologies.
'Keep holding on to each other'
Connecting the community by road year-round for the first time is also expected to have broader impacts.
Environmental impacts are among the most obvious, while some residents fear the consequences of easier access to drugs and alcohol, an influx of people coming to the community, and the potential struggle to find resources to provide for them.
The government of Whatì is looking into building a healing centre or creating new programs to help residents deal with some of those impacts, while Lafferty suggested education will be key.
“Any small community will face that throughout the Northwest Territories," said the Monfwi MLA, "but there has got to be education, awareness attached to it and all the partners need to be involved: the community members, the community government, the Tłįchǫ government, the territorial government, and even at the federal level, because it's all about reconciliation as well.”
Chief Alfonz Nitsiza at the ground-breaking ceremony for the road. Alice Twa/Cabin Radio
Chief Nitsiza of Whatì said now is the time for the community to adapt to the world around it.
"We knew that this change would happen and we can't just sit idle and not be ready," he said.
However, while politicians stressed the positives of the all-season road, residents expressed some reservations.
Charlie Jeremick'ca told Cabin Radio he had fears but also recognized the benefits the road will have on the community.
“[The residents have] to be really protected because maybe alcohol's coming in, and tourism coming in, and people from outside maybe want to move in without notice," said Jeremick'ca.
"Once the road is in, there’ll be groceries coming in, fuel coming in, probably tourism coming in, and we have to be on top of most likely everything.”
Drummers began Saturday's ceremony. Alice Twa/Cabin Radio
One resident, who declined to be named, said they remained nervous about how the road will affect Whatì.
“Opening the road, I'm not too happy," the resident said. "I like the way it is, a smaller, isolated community, and it's going to be a big difference when the road comes.
“I just want us as a small community to keep on holding on to each other, love one another as a small community. I hope things stay the same, but it might be a big difference when the road opens so that's a thing that I'm afraid of.”
Nitsiza says he recognizes these concerns, but asks people to consider the younger generation.
“Will they be living the same way as we were? No, times have changed," he said.
"We have to adapt and try to fit in with the mainstream society – I mean education, job training, jobs certainly, and to make a living for themselves.
“They want to get out. They want to get out and meet other people, and this road will do that.”
Construction will start on the Highway 3 side of the road and may also begin on the Whatì side if weather permits.
The road is predicted to be complete by the year 2022. In the meantime, residents will still be able to access the winter road.